Scaling up liquid soap production - do I really need a machine?

Hi! Newbie here.

We have been running a very amateur liquid soap making operation for a year. As in - fully made and mixed by hand and sold at farmers markets/to friends. The consistency of our soap is not very even, and in general it doesn't seem as 'polished' as a mass market body wash. That's always been the charm of super hand-made farmers market stuff!

We're looking to scale up operations and begin doing e-commerce and selling into other businesses. We have to start making a more professional products.

Our soap is of the 'all natural' type (that's the branding), and the ingredients are roughly as follows (this may not be important to the question but I'm including it for full info):

Saponified oils of Coconut and Olive, Jojoba Oil, Guar Gum, Glycerin Extract, Aloe Vera, and a few different essential oils.

The question:

Should we invest in a mixer? Is such a machine really something that any respectable small-to-medium business uses during the manufacturing of liquid soap?

We use a little stick blender to make the 'saponified' ingredients, sure, but after that, when all the ingredients are combined to make the finished product, we've never had a mixer to really help things. Some of these 'high shear' mixers I've been reading about might help with consistency, reduce opaqueness of the final product (clear is better, but we never achieve it), etc. Perhaps there are many benefits that I'm unaware of.

Thanks!
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  • Scale-up can be tricky - and expensive.

    The most important question is... how big are your current batches? Also, can you share your current production procedure?

    The next biggest question is... how confident you are in future growth? The more confident you are, the more likely it will be that you can ultimately save money by skipping an intermediate step or two.

    As an example, if you wanted to move up a step from where I think you are, you would buy a big commercial stick blender, a heavy-duty small overhead mixer, and some large stainless steel cooking pots with lids. Total cost probably between 2-4 grand.

    The next step up would be to buy a pilot-sized homogenizing mixer, a pilot-sized overhead mixer, and one or two medium-sized soap mixing tanks. Total cost about 8-10 grand for decent used equipment, probably closer to $20,000 for all new.

    My point is that you could skip the first step, and go right to the second, if you were convinced that your business would grow to need that capacity. Doing so would save you the $2-4,000 you would have spent - but you are taking more of a financial risk.


    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • Or you could hire a contract manufacturer and spend your time and money focused on marketing your brand.
  • @Perry: for various reasons (amongst them being that one of our founding members is really passionate about making everything herself) we have decided to keep production in-house.

    @Bobzchemist: I've browsed a few topics on this site and indeed you appear to be the master wizard here! Thanks for the response!

    Our current batches are not big. We're talking less than 10 litres. One of our directors is a veteran investor, and I myself have raised funds for other companies in another sector - so we have the means and desire to invest some money into scaling up. 

    Having said that - I'm interested in your first idea. The one that involves scaling up 'to the next step'. I think we're going to enter a phase where we spend 6 months giving out samples, marketing into private institutions through various channels we have, etc. I think we can invest a few thousand on equipment during this phase, and leave the larger scale investments (the $20k you mentioned) until later.

    I'll get back to you ASAP with the current production procedure. My partner will have to explain it to me!

    Regarding the big commercial stick blender, overhead mixer, pots and lids - and I realize I'm asking a bit much here - would you happen to have a specific recommendation for each? As in, a link to a product you think is most suitable?

    Thanks for your time-
  • There are good reasons that synthetic liquid soap dominates the market. Are you sure that your product would be able to compete in the wider world? I already made that decision, and it was to go synthetic.
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • @Bobzchemist:

    These steps come after we produce the saponified oils of coconut and olive.

    We have jugs of each of these 2 oils; pre-produced, since it takes about 5 hours to finish the saponification procedure.

    If the saponification procedure is what you'd like to know more about, please let me know. It involves the big pot, mixing, a stove, and a stick blender at times, etc., as you'd expect to find in a home 'liquid body wash' making hobby.

    So, starting with our 2 saponified oils and the rest of the ingredeints:

    1) Mix xanthan gum into glycerine (by hand, at room temperature..) (switching to guar gum)
    2) Mix saponified oils of coconut and olive oil with (golden) jojoba oil and aloe vera (by hand, at room temperature)
    3) Slowly mix #1 and #2 together. (by hand, at room temperature)
    4) Add essential oils to the mix
    5) Mix everything together (by hand..)

    There's no heat involved (except for during the production of the saponified oils of coconut and olive), and we haven't used any machines except for a stick blender during the saponification of the base 2 ingredients.

    Again - this has all been farmers market stuff; of wildly inconsistent texture and clearly inferior homogenization.

    I guess what I'm really trying to learn is what kind of machinery should we be using during the above steps.

    As an aside, our company's historial sales have been essential oils, essential oil blends, essential oil 'roller ball' sticks, etc. This body wash product is aiming to be a new line, and will fit into the 'natural and infused with essential oils' branding. 

    @Belassi: we're OK to live in the niche world. As an example of a niche body wash that lives in the world of "natural ingredients", there's Defense Soap, amongst others: http://www.defensesoap.com/defense-soap-shower-gel.html
  • Hallstar has an entire line of olive oil surfactants that are really nice and have some favorable characteristics. This may be something of interest to you. This could save you some time with saponification and also lead to a bit more uniform end product.

    Good luck with your expansion!

  • I've mentioned some of this stuff before on here, but probably not all in the same place, so here goes:

    For a "stick blender", what you actually need is a "Commercial Immersion Blender". Without knowing the size of your batches, I can't suggest a size, but Waring has a good reputation for durability:

    For a stainless steel crockpot, something like this one:

    For an overhead stirrer, and for a lot of pilot/small-scale production equipment, look here:
    or here:


    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @Bobzchemist: thanks for the links! Indeed I've seen you recommend that "commercial immersion blender" before in another thread. 

    To be clear: this blender would be used during the saponification stage (where we're mixing water/olive (or coconut) oil/potassium hydroxide over a double boiler to create the 'paste', etc)?
  • Yes,it would. You need a slow stirring mixer for your dilution step.

    But...double boilers are intrinsically unsafe, because of potential steam/hot water burns. There are safer ways of heating batches.
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @Bobzchemist: the partner who makes the soap learned the double boiling method at a local 'soap making school'. Pot inside an even larger pot which is filled with boiling water. This is the basis for the saponification stage (which takes 3+ hours of heating, occasionally mixing, etc., until gel!)

    I think you're telling me that this method is very... 'arts and crafts' style, and not something that might scale?

    What would you recommend as a safer way of heating batches?

    Also, regarding a slow stirring mixer - I suppose this would be used for everything post-saponification stage. A high speed immersion blender has no more use post-saponification, correct?
  • edited February 2016
    There's absolutely nothing wrong with using hot water or steam to heat a kettle, and it scales very well - it's the double boiler part that's dangerous. Simply put, you have to make very sure that the hot water/steam is safely contained, and has no chance of escaping to burn someone - that's impossible to do with a double boiler setup.

    Kettles can be heated in any number of ways - where the heat comes from really makes no difference to the batch as long as you can avoid hot spots.

    Something like this, for example, can accept hot water or steam, and do it safely:

    Something like this, on the other hand, has heating elements permanently submerged in water - it's a double boiler, but with no chance for the water to get out:
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @Bobzchemist: great advice, thanks. Understood. So - we ought to have a much safer and controlled way of 'double boiling' during our saponification stage. The products you just shared look great, if not a bit expensive - but totally opens up my mind re: what I should be looking into!

    I'm curious - you mention that there's 'nothing wrong' with double boiling to make our base soap gel; does this imply that there are perhaps other methods that I might explore?

    Our base soap gel is simply water + potassium hydroxide + olive/coconut oil.

    And thanks again!
  • Other methods:
    Purchase potassium cocoate 50% and potassium oleate, blend 25/75, dilute to required concentration, add any active ingredients e.g. glycerin, thicken with salt.

    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • Are there any of these lovely 'electric all-in-one double boiler' machines that are less than $4-5k? They look fantastic but are a bit out of our budget.. perhaps I could find a used one up in Vancouver (Canada)..
  • I have read most of your responses and the first thing I noticed was that you mentioned:

    "The consistency of our soap is not very even, and in general it doesn't seem as 'polished' as a mass market body wash."

    Perhaps you may wish to work on your formula and techniques before you try a production batch?

    Basically, my liquid soap is made by heating the oils, mixing the KOH with water in a plastic bucket until combined then adding the solution to the oils and stirring until saponified and it turns to a paste.  For me that takes about 10 minutes.  It is then covered and left overnight to make sure the saponification process is complete.  The next day the paste is weighed to determine the amount of H2O to be added, water is then heated then my thickener is added and stirred until dissolved, then the soap paste is added to the heated water and stirred then left to be dissolved by the heated water then covered. (glycerin can be added at this point if used).  Usually the by the next day the paste is totally dissolved and the fragrance can be added and it is weighed again to see if H2O needs to be added to bring it to the proper concentration reflected in the formula and it is then ready to bottle.  For this type of production a mixer is not needed.
  • @David: great explanation.
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • @David08848: thanks for your advice. I'll pass that on. I was hearing that "KOH + water + oils -> paste" stage took around 3 hours, so I'm surprised to see that it only takes 10 minutes for you. Will inquire!
  • What size are your batches?
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @Bobzchemist: She has historically been making around 3lbs of the saponified paste. Like.. super small batches.

    I'm very much confused about the '10 minutes to saponify' part. Her teacher (and all the video material) includes over 3 hours of cooking until you get the paste.

    Even looking at instructions from a local soap making shop (http://www.voyageursoapandcandle.com/How_to_Make_Natural_Liquid_Soap_s/367.htm), they say the following:

    "Continue cooking the mixture for a minimum three hour period. During this time, you will note that the mixture will become translucent. After three hours turn off the heat and let the paste stand in the double boiler overnight if possible."

    I'm really confused how some people can say 10 minutes, and others 3+ hours with the same ingredients (oil, KOH + water)..
  • If you use fatty acids (e.g. oleic acid) it takes seconds rather than minutes. Three hours is ridiculous.
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • OK, I think there's some confusion over terminology, and maybe over what's going on chemically.

    If you have everything hot enough, getting the oil/water/KOH mixture to a certain thickness (called 'trace') takes 10-20 minutes of high-speed mixing.

    Chemically, "trace" is the point where enough of the KOH has reacted with the oils (making soap) to both emulsify the remaining oils and thicken the batch significantly. The emulsification is stable enough that you can stop high speed mixing at this point. The remainder of the oils and KOH will now react on their own without the need for external energy.

    If you continue to heat and stir the batch, however, the soap reaction will run to completion in 3-4 hours. If you turn off the heat and mixing, the way @David08848 does, then it will take 8-10 hours, or overnight. If you've run the reaction to completion (all the oil has turned to soap) you really don't need to leave it hot in the double boiler overnight - that's just a precaution.

    So, now that I know your batch size and process, here's what I suggest for expanding production.

    Buy this tank: $822
    This blender: $395

    This Clamp: $92

    This overhead mixer: $693
    Or possibly this whisk attachment (if your budget's tight):  $250

    If you get the overhead mixer, you will want to cut a hole in the tank lid for it, and you may need to open up the support ring a little.

    Total cost =822+395+92+693 = $2,000 (US)

    I'd strongly suggest following David's method - it will keep from burning out your mixer.
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @Bobzchemist: Fantastic answer! Thank you so much. You've completely cleared up everything, and pointed out how we may improve our process. Also, I have a good idea re: what hardware to obtain. (I've even found that Waring immersion blender on Craigstlist!)

    For reference - she hasn't been using the mixer (stick blender) for the full 3 hours. Most of it is just 'open up the lid every 30 minutes and stir by hand'.

    But now I understand why there are 2 different times as explained by the chemical process (the external energy that we added for 3 hours accelerated the process, I suppose, though it wasted a lot of time to monitor, keep boiling, etc). We can just let the chemical process run its course overnight!

    If we have any more silly questions I'll ask in another thread. You've all helped me out more than enough here. Thanks from Vancouver, Canada! :)
  • At Indochine Natural we have more or less evolved as you have described stephanm using a similar process of saponification.....small 10 Kg batches and now we use a 20 Gal (160 lbs) Water Jacketed Melter/Heater, and Waring 18" Commercial Duty Power Wand as identified above by BZChemist. We have not seen the need to purchase a overhead stirrer.

    Overall, works well for us, and product demand is high. We run this machine almost every day to keep up with deman, and are probably at the point of needing to invest in a second set up.
    Dr. Mike Thair
    Cofounder & Chief Formulator
    Indochine Natural
  • @mikethair: why haven't you invested in an overhead stirrer? When you mix the saponified oil(s) with the rest of the ingredients, do you just stir everything by hand in a separate container? Or do you have that whisk attachment for the Waring Immersion Blender?
  • @stephanm: We find the Waring Blender a bit more versatile, and being more manouverable better able to break up the bigs clumps of soap gel during dilution. I do not think this would work as well as an overhead stirrer, but we have never tried.

    We produce the batches of saponified oils and then store in jerrycans for at least two weeks, then check the pH. When you say "mix the saponified oil(s) with the rest of the ingredients" I'm not sure what you mean here. In our case, we just mix with essential oils in the appropraite batch size for the order of face wash, body wash, or shampoo (all different recipes of saponified oils), and usually this is done using a large spoon or paddle.
    Dr. Mike Thair
    Cofounder & Chief Formulator
    Indochine Natural
  • I find that the food industry is usually a great place to source small to medium-sized pilot equipment, especially if you don't worry too much about expensive scale-up.

    This 2-gallon blender, for example:

    Scales up to this 6.5 gallon one fairly well:

    But going much past that costs significant amounts of money to get the same ratio of power to batch size.
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • Also, as @mikethair describes, you don't really need an overhead stirrer, although your batch does need to be stirred. 

    What you're doing with an overhead stirrer is actually automating a manual process. Soap was made for centuries by folks with paddles stirring kettles - using the overhead stirrer just means that you can use it to stir instead of having a human do it - freeing up that human to do something else (mostly, anyway - you still need to check your batch occasionally)
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • @mikethair - By 'mix in the remaining ingredients' I meant all the stuff on top of the saponified oil base. In our case it's things like essential oils, jojoba oil, guar gum/vegetable glycerine.
  • How do you get the pH to a reasonable level? Borax?
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • @Belassi - she's using citric acid.
  • @mikethair: might I ask which "20 Gal (160 lbs) Water Jacketed Melter/Heater" you are using in your process? Thanks-
  • stephanm   the "20 Gal (160 lbs) Water Jacketed Melter/Heater"we are using was purchased from www.soapequipment.com

    See:  http://www.soapequipment.com/Tanks/
    Dr. Mike Thair
    Cofounder & Chief Formulator
    Indochine Natural
  • Looks like it would be good for hot process shampoo too using an overhead paddle stirrer.
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • Belassi picked up on it when he said "If you use fatty acids (e.g. oleic acid) it takes seconds
    rather than minutes. Three hours is ridiculous."

    You could also use an oil that is high in a particular fatty acid such as olive oil which is typically 80-82% Oleic Acid... hint, hint...

    Also, your lye solution is probably too weak!   So many of the books, articles call for relatively weak lye solutions because so many homecrafters are afraid of working with a stronger solution hence the three hours (they say cooking!,,Ugh!) processing time!  hint, hint...

    Dilution of paste goes pretty quickly in hot water! hint, hint...

    Why the heck do you need a mixer?  I big paddle from a restaurant supply place will do the trick and it is cheap!  Pretty much all of what I use in my 800 sq. ft. workspace is restaurant equipment from a restaurant supply place!  I bought the heater from soapequipment.com and it sits on a stainless steel table unused...

    Best of luck!
  • We use a 50% lye solution here. You do need to be very careful with it.

    There are high-oleic versions of sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil that might also be worth looking into.
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • If I were making liquid soap in large quantity, I would be looking at buying palmitic acid, oleic acid, and coconut oil as the majority components and adding minority oils as required eg avocado oil, shea butter, etc.
    Design of anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics. In-house label and box design capability.
  • Hi Bob, this scale is still too artesanal, what about industry level , do you have some info about equipment manufacturers at masive comsumption level?
  • Now that's a fun question. I don't usually get to play with equipment at that level.

    Yes, I have info about all size levels. How large are we talking about?

    (When I first started working, I worked for Unilever. I used to joke about buying one of their surplus soap tanks to live in - it was larger than my house).
    Robert Zonis, Sr. Formulation Chemist, Beaumont Products "All opinions and comments expressed are my own, have no relation to Beaumont Products, are fully copyrighted, and may not be used without written permission."
  • Thanks for your fast and nice repply. We are talking about 300 Kg to saponify once a day. Also, Unilever style is exactly what I looking for, because the product what I'm talking about is solid soap. Sure it is not apartment size but still is greater than arthesanal size. Regards
    Note: how to avoid in tank solidification is also a great subject to cover for me. I know the greater the tank the a greater the risk.
  • Hi All

    This is quite a old post but based on your great responses would it be great to get your thoughts on the following video.


    It is only showing a small part of the process and maybe that is why it appears as it does. What some of you maybe know is if it is possible to make castile liquid soap in a process where it always stays liquid as it appears in that video.

    Looking forward to hear your thoughts
  • Of course it is... if you are making castile which is often very high in Olive Oil or made totally of Olive Oil.  As I said before, it is about 81-82% Oleic Acid which makes a very water soluble soap but Castor is even better in that respect.  The question is how long does saponification take with such a liquid product?  Quite a while, I would think!  The more "paste" type of method happens much more quickly...
  • @David08848 Thanks for your input.
    I tried to make it like that in a crock pot with a mixer slowly running but after 2 days it still was cloudy so I though to get some outside input. One thing I could retry is adding only enough water to make it liquid so it stays closer to "paste". 

    By the way, beautiful place you got and nice website. If you should not be aware do I believe your link to your contact page are not working correctly.

    Thanks again

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